Humans are doing democracy wrong. Bees are doing it right

There is a system that accounts for intensity of passion as well as idle opinion – hives have used it successfully for millions of years

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

It will be interesting to learn next week what proportion of the UK vote is now postal. Because postal voting boosts the turnout, people seem happy to ignore the risk of in-family coercion, or the fact that a vote may not be private. Thirty years ago it was assumed that postal voting was for the infirm or for people serving in the military. Now it is presented as just a handy alternative to the polling booth — the drive-thru lane of democratic consensus.

But should there be a cost to voting, even if it’s only a short contemplative walk to the polling booth? Do you want everyone to vote? Why encourage people who are happily indifferent to express an opinion, and so cancel out the opinions of others who care a great deal? Apathy is a noble social virtue: ‘I care so little here that I will not impose an opinion on the rest of you merely for the sake of doing so.’ Without the indifferent, society would break down.

One problem with social media is that the cost of expressing opinions has become too low. You no longer have to buy a stamp, construct a placard or sit down with a pen and marshal your thoughts, nor do you need to bother to collect any supporting information — you press a button. The result of this is that opinions are little connected to behaviour. They have become a form of personal ornamentation; the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail, only without the corresponding burden to the peacock. ‘Look! My hatred of Katie Hopkins is even larger and more symmetrical than yours.’ When there was a cost to expressing an opinion, and a limit to the number of opinions you could express, a belief meant something.

Soon, no doubt, there will be pressure to vote online, or by mobile phone or via your Xbox. You will be able to ‘share’ your vote soon after making it, or pose for a selfie with your ballot. The problem with this is that we will have done what humans often do, which is to use technology to make things easier while missing an opportunity to make them significantly better.

Is there a way to use technology to improve democracy — not only by changing the medium but by rethinking the whole interface? Well, there might be. And it is a brand new idea — in humans, at any rate. In another social species it has been working well for tens of millions of years.

Just as bees perfected the hexagonal honeycomb long before we understood geometry, they seem to have discovered democracy when the ancestors of Cleisthenes were swinging from trees.

Three hundred years ago, the Anglo-Dutch writer Bernard Mandeville caused public uproar when he published a book called The Fable of the Bees. The hive described by Mandeville prospered while the bees acted in their self-interest, but moralistic bees were disgusted by the lack of virtue in their colleagues. The moralists prevailed thanks to divine intervention, which instilled the bees with virtue. Then the hive collapsed. With no incentive to improve their lot, the bees stopped co-operating with each other. Thus Mandeville drew from the bees the lesson that society may do better to rely on self-interest than on virtue to fuel economic development and invention.

The general public was stung by this tale, but the wisest readers saw in it the basis of social reform. Samuel Johnson criticised the book’s definition of virtue, but also acknowledged that ‘it opened his eyes into real life very much’; Adam Smith rejected Mandeville’s open embrace of selfishness, but realised that the right social institutions, in particular the market system of prices, could harness the power of self-interest to promote a social good. Yet while Smith discovered the efficiency of the market economic system, he and economists after him were never able to find an efficient method of government.

To find this missing piece of the puzzle, we think Smith should have studied the very same bees that inspired Mandeville. Indeed, when one examines bees, it is possible to learn how to make the best group decisions about everything from creating the best rail service (or even fizzy drink) to marriage equality.

Today’s Mandeville is the renowned biologist Thomas D. Seeley, who was part of a team which discovered that colonies of honey bees look for new pollen sources to harvest by sending out scouts who search for the most attractive places. When the scouts return to the hive, they perform complicated dances in front of their comrades. The duration and intensity of these dances vary: bees who have found more attractive sources of pollen dance longer and more excitedly to signal the value of their location. The other bees will fly to the locations that are signified as most attractive and then return and do their own dances if they concur. Eventually a consensus is reached, and the colony concentrates on the new food source.

Seeley himself has found in the collective decision-making of the bees a metaphor and inspiration for democracy. Yet the bee system is far from the simple one-individual, one-vote set-up so popular among humans. If it were, there would be no way for Bee X who has discovered a particularly attractive source of pollen to convince fellow bees that his source truly deserves extra attention. Thus, it is the total passion of the bees, not simply numbers alone (one mandible, one vote) that ultimately carries the day.

Of course, every bee wants credit for their own find. So there needs to be a countervailing costly mechanism to prevent bees from simply over-promoting any pollen source they know. Bees must spend a lot of energy to bring their fellows around. Seeley’s research shows that the time they spend on dances grows not linearly but quadratically in proportion to the attractiveness of the site they encountered. Twice as good a site leads to four times as much wiggling, three times as good a site leads to nine times as lengthy a dance, and so forth.

In recent work, one of us (Weyl) has tried to explain this logic and how it could help humans make better group decisions. In particular, most democracies lack the ability for individuals to express intensity of preference — for example, how much gun ownership matters to gun owners, or the value of Scottish independence or a nuclear deterrent. Just as communism rationed to everyone equally the housing, food and cars they were ‘supposed’ to have, today’s democracies say everyone gets rationed exactly one vote on each issue — with varying intensities of preference factored out.

Under Quadratic Voting (QV), by contrast, individuals have a vote budget that they can spread around different issues that matter to them in proportion to the value those issues hold for them. And just as with Seeley’s bees, it becomes increasingly costly proportionately to acquire the next unit of influence on one issue. This approach highlights not only frequency of preferences but also intensity of preferences, by forcing individuals to decide how they will divide their influence across issues, while penalising the single-issue fanatic’s fussiness of putting all one’s weight on a single issue. It encourages individuals to distribute their points in precise proportion to how much each issue matters to them. In fact, Glen Weyl’s statistician co-author Steven P. Lalley has shown mathematically that QV is the only pricing rule that gives individuals an incentive truthfully to report their preferences. (Mathematically inclined readers of The Spectator will be pleased to learn that ‘all type-symmetric Bayes-Nash equilibria of an independent private values Quadratic Voting game converge to an efficient price-taking outcome as the population size grows large’ — as any bee could tell you.)

The other of us, Rory Sutherland, believes that one of the most promising applications of this idea is market research. Consider a firm that wants to learn whether customers care about particular product attributes: colour, quality, price, and so on. Rather than simply ask people what they care about — which leads to notoriously inaccurate results, often where people affect strong views just to maximise their individual influence — a business, or a public service, could supply customers with budgets of credits which they then used to vote, in quadratic fashion, for the attributes they want. This forces the group of respondents, like the swarm of bees, to allocate more resources to the options they care most about. An organisation can thus learn the nuanced collective intelligence of its users. (If you could allocate your BBC licence fee quadratically, you could put all the money towards BBC4 and the World Service.)

Smith was inspired by Mandeville’s bees to use markets to shape individual self-interest towards the social good. We can similarly turn to this other social species for inspiration as we collaborate to help make collective decisions about products and policies which will better reflect the needs and desires of the public.

If you want a better system of voting, the bees have it. When Winston Churchill said that democracy was ‘the worst form of government, except all the others which have been tried’, he was nearly right: but he failed to consider his Chartwell hives.


Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments